People are working longer and retiring later. This is creating a dramatic generation divide between workers. And it has profound implications in terms of worker safety and occupational health. There are benefits – and there are potential dangers.
Recently I interviewed Harvard-trained economist and Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, David Foot, the outspoken and controversial expert on demographics and how they impact economic change. He is the author of the landmark Boom, Bust & Echo and several other books on demographics. Here’s what he said about how older workers are changing the face of the workplace today and why.
“There are simply more workers who are 55-plus than ever before and they may be working longer. With a rising life expectancy, two years per decade, that means a 55-year-old today is like a 44-year-old, so their health is not like your parents at that age,” Foot said. “My understanding is that older workers are less likely to be injured on the job because they have lots more experience, but if they are injured, it is usually more serious and they are off work longer.”
This trend is reflected in a statistical study published in 2011 by WorksafeBC that focuses on older workers and gives explicit statistical details about types of accidents and the age groups they affect.
Calgary-based Colin Steadman, NSCO and Senior Safety Advisor for Southern Alberta at the Alberta Construction Safety Association agrees. “We’ve got a labour shortage in Alberta,” he says. (This shortage is reflected in major centres across Canada, according to the Canadian Construction Association.)
Older workers are staying on construction sites longer, maybe because they don’t want to retire or can’t afford to retire, Steadman says. It’s not uncommon for older workers “to forget that they’re not 18 anymore.”
Steadman remembers an older worker who thought he could correct a problem with a machine while it was still running. “He lost a finger,” he said. “Young workers think they’re invincible and older workers can fall back on that mentality because they could get away with it 30 years ago.”
While older workers may lose some of the physical capacities as they get older, other functions improve with age – strategic thinking, sharp-wittedness, wisdom, considerateness and ability to rationalize, according to Promoting active aging in the workplace, a 2012 report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
Older workers are “incredibly valuable on construction sites,” Steadman says. “They’ve seen and experienced injuries and are great mentors and trainers for younger workers. With their 30-40 years of experience, they can teach younger workers with their wealth of knowledge. They’ve experienced it, lost fingers, fallen off roofs and broken backs.”
The best way to train workers of all ages is to get them together so they can learn interactively, he says. “If you want to teach workers how to wear fall protection equipment, give it to them. Then make sure they know how to wear it. Show them how to use it, how to clean it and make sure it fits properly.”
“Hands-on learning really makes the difference and the older workers can mentor the younger workers,” he says.
He adds that part of your on the job safety strategy for workers of all ages should be:
a) Slow down
b) If you need extra equipment, ask for it
c) If you need extra help, ask for it
Because of their experience and know-how, older workers may have fewer injuries than younger workers, “but their recovery time is longer, they’re not as strong and healthy, so their body’s ability to fix itself isn’t as good, their injuries could be more disabling and time off is longer,” says Steadman.
It’s vital that employers and managers keep a close eye on their workers “to ensure workers of all ages are working well,” he says. “Managers must be active and engaged with their workers, not sitting in an office somewhere. They’ve got to get out on the site to see what’s going on.”